A Rabbi’s Understanding of Resurrection:
Isaiah 58:9-14
November 13, 2005
Delivered at the United Church of Christ

Rabbi Edward S. Boraz, Ph.D.
Michael Steinberg ’61 Rabbi of Dartmouth College Hillel
The Roth Center for Jewish Life
5 Occom Ridge
Hanover, New Hampshire, 03755


I want to thank all of you this morning for this sacred privilege of delivering this morning’s sermon. I particularly want to express my deepest thanks to Rev. Carla Bailey for her friendship and guidance; she is a Pastors’ pastor. I treasure the bond that we share.

When Rev. Bailey and I returned from restoring the cemetery in Lunna, Belarus, I began the task of transcribing and then translating each of the one hundred and twenty five headstones that were uncovered and righted. I spent considerable time and energy, both in the cemetery at Lunna and at home, often into the early hours of the morning, attempting to read these stones that were written in a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish. They often contained unusual abbreviations and biblical allusions. I was unable to disengage from this project. I found myself asking, “What am I doing? Why does this work seem so significant, such that I am unable to separate myself from it?” I kept putting aside these thoughts until I received your generous invitation to preach this morning.

Such questions led to this morning’s sermon, “A Jewish look at Resurrection.” I know that this term “resurrection” is sacred in the Christian faith and my remarks are limited only to how I, as a Rabbi and as a Jew, understand it from my own faith perspective.

An Old Testament Review

Resurrection, for our purposes, may be defined, as bringing that which is inanimate, to life. It is absent in the Five Books of Moses. Each one of the patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and then Moses, die and are “gathered to their people.” The Torah contains no direct or even indirect reference that even the most righteous, once having passed away, are in some way, brought back to life or that the soul survives, such that there is an afterlife.

Such ideas developed during the Second Temple period from 425 b.c.e. up to and including the time of the Talmud; a period that covered over one thousand years. Our ancestors had significant encounters with Hellenistic and Persian cultures. Christianity followed and the theme of resurrection became central to its theology.

The Talmud, the central anthology of Jewish thought and belief, contrary to the conclusion in the Book of Job where Job is restored to “the good life” here on earth, suggests that the righteous indeed may suffer as a “trial” to achieve everlasting life in the world to come.

Jewish faith asserted its belief in an afterlife, but that those who are dead will be reanimated and, in the messianic era, pursuant to the metaphor used in Ezekiel’s dry bone prophecy, and returned to Israel. One of the most sacred sections of our traditional liturgy contains the following:

You are eternally mighty, my Lord, the Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save, who sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy, supports the fallen, heals the sick, releases the confined, and maintains his faith to those asleep in the dust. Who is like You, O Master of mighty deeds, and who is comparable to You, O King Who causes death and restores life and makes salvation sprout! And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, G-d, who resuscitates the dead (translation Art Scroll Siddur).

Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher who lived from 1140 to 1205, asserted that resurrection of the dead was one of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith, though he could find no textual support for it, Instead, in his seminal work, the Mishneh Torah (literally the teaching of the Torah) wrote that one should never serve God in the expectation of some type of reward, be it in this world or the world to come, to receive a blessing or to avert punishment.

This is not the proper manner in which to serve God. Rather, one should serve God through living the principles of Torah, i.e. the mitzvot or commandments. Such service should be solely because of love of God and because such devotion is True and that from such Eternal Truth, the Good will follow.

Resurrection in the Modern Period

When the modern period of the enlightenment began in the late 18th and early 19th century in Europe and the Reform movement began to take root, Jewish theologians began to reexamine and ultimately reinterpret this concept. In Reform Judaism, the idea of resurrection was explicitly rejected and all such references were removed from its liturgy. The great Reform German Jewish theologian, Abraham Geiger wrote the following:

From now on, the hope for an after-life should not be expressed in terms which suggest a future revival, a resurrection of the body; rather, they must stress the immortality of the human soul….. We must recognize the force of prayer and the fulfillment of all our obligations toward God more through the blessed effect which they have on our ennoblement, rather than as necessary obeisance to a command imposed from above.

As a result, the Reform liturgy modified the ancient prayer that I recited earlier. It changed the Hebrew from “mechayeh hametim” – that is one who gives life to the dead – to “mechayeh hakol” – one who gives life to all (creatures). God is the source of life, but one who does not engage in Frankenstein-like conduct.

A Rabbi’s Look

For a lifetime, even this morning, I have recited the “mechayeh hametim” version; the one who gives life to dead. But I have also witnessed so many times the lowering of the coffin into the cold earth, so that I have doubts about resurrection or the afterlife as my tradition teaches.
As I grow older, I find my heart seeking a theology based on as much certainty as is possible, so that in the passing years when my own physical footing seems less certain, the footings that my faith rests on will seem more firm.

I have come to believe that the human psyche drives theology. Theology, our understanding of God, comes out of a deep-seated human need to address that which is ultimately unanswerable. It is from this understanding that I embrace resurrection in the following manner. I need to know, to have some measure of confidence, that each human life means something more than his or her time here on this earth. I believe that people of faith do not wish to be forgotten by God. Instead, we yearn for God to remember us after nature has anaesthetized us forever. I find this thought ennobling and it says a great deal about our need for God.

I have a better understanding, though incomplete, why I am unable to desist from this work. In a deep existential sense, I believe that my students, my colleague Rev. Carla Bailey, with a sense of a sacred, transcendent spirit, were engaged in the sacred act of resurrecting those Jews, those human beings long since forgotten in the once abandoned, but now partially restored Jewish cemetery of Lunna. Those buried are no longer consigned to the coldness of the earth. Their lineage no longer ends at Auschwitz. Their children are no longer among the ashes that are part of a small pool of water that lies next to Crematorium II at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Instead this morning, I consider it a great honor to read one such stone that touched my heart – first in the Hebrew and then the translation:

A tree cries
Pools of water descend from my eyes
Over the departure of my endearing mother Mrs.
Rivkah Raisel the daughter of R. Yehudah
A woman struck down in the middle
of her life, alas a day of darkness
is engraved upon the tablet of my heart
And the monument hewn as a memorial
bears witness on the 28th day of the month of
Shevat in the year 5679 [1919]
May her soul be bound up in the bonds of life.

Through these acts of restoration and remembrance, the ancient prayer of resurrection is answered. Each human being remembered reveals a piece of the Divine Image that was buried and then forgotten so long ago. Thus, the vision of Isaiah 58:9-14, read each year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is most deeply felt:

If you take away from your midst the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking iniquity; and if you draw your heart to the hungry, if you satisfy the heart that suffers; then your light will rise even though it is dark; your gloom will seem like the light of midday; the Lord shall guide you continually and satisfy your heart in drought, and make strong, your bones: And you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

And those among you shall rebuild the ancient ruins: you shall erect the foundations of many generations, and you shall be called, “The repairer of broken fences - the restorer of paths to dwell in.”

If you refrain from your work because of the Sabbath, from pursuing your business on the holy day; calling the Sabbath a delight; the holy day of the Lord honorable, not going about your ways, or pursuing your own business, or speaking of vain matters,

Then you shall delight yourself in God and I, the Lord, will cause you to ride upon the high places of the earth and feed you the heritage of Jacob, thy ancestor; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.